Act: Inspiration

Come Plog With Me. (Yes, Litter Matters. A Lot.)

July 31, 2018

Results of island plogging

Plogging, or picking up litter while jogging, is a new fad created by the Swedes. One might think the Swedes are a tidy enough lot that litter wouldn’t be a concern, but after watching videos of bags of trash collected by enthusiastic Swedish joggers, I guess the craze has utilitarian benefits even there.

I started plogging a few months back on my morning runs in San Francisco. I’d been sweeping the sidewalk and picking up all litter in front of my house (and three of my neighbors’ houses) for some time. Devoting one morning run a week to plogging meant I extended my caretaking to five kilometers. And boy have I collected trash. It was so bad at first that I ignored the gutters and just focused on the sidewalk. Even then I filled up five bags each run, emptying them at public trashcans as I went along.

As time has gone on, I’ve noticed that due to prevailing winds, trash tends to collect on the western side of north-south streets. I’ve also noticed that some people keep their sidewalks tidy and others are slobs. There is one particular apartment building that is invariably the worst spot on my entire route. I’ve noticed that if the winds are bad after recycling bins are set out, wind whips the tops of the bins open and all sorts of recycling blows far and wide. (Bad design!) Though eliminating plastic straws might be a good idea, I have to say I haven’t encountered all that many while plogging. What I do pick up is an endless number of candy wrappers, convenience/junk food wrappers and cigarette butts. In the weeks preceding California’s primary election I also picked up an absolutely ridiculous amount of campaign material, inclining me to despise the glossy faces smiling up at me from the sidewalk. I’ve also noticed that since our trash collection fees in San Francisco rose significantly, the public trash cans are now often very, very full.

When candy is not dandy

As I write this, I am currently on an island where my family has spent the last twenty-five Julys. This largely rural community with vacation homes along the water is a very crunchy-granola, environmentally-conscious haven where many citizens participate in an all-island clean up twice a year. But even here when I plog, I am picking up candy and junk food wrappers galore from the ditches, and an extraordinary number of cigarette butts from the roadsides. The cigarette butts are especially mystifying since no one here appears to smoke. In terms of litter, this is no San Francisco: during a 5K run, I collect only half a bag of trash instead of five. Still the level of litter surprises me. While the disposal fee for household trash is pricey (after all, it has to be carted off-island on a boat) collected street trash is free.

I encourage you to join me in plogging or plalking. First off, plogging and plalking is good for you! I’ve written many times before about the benefits of walking and walkable neighborhoods. We all need thirty minutes of exercise a day for just basic health, so plogging (or plalking) is a great way to get outdoors and accomplish two positive things at once. Plogging burns more calories per hour than straight running and can offer as good cardio if your route is not so crazy bad as to slow you to a crawl. (If it does slow you to a crawl the first time you do it, I promise it will get better.) Squatting and leaning over when plogging nicely trims your waist, and the stopping and starting can be a form of interval training. Secondly, plogging is good for the environment. Thirdly, plogging is good for humanity on a physical, social and even spiritual level. Let’s examine why.

Plogging and the Environment. Surely everyone has heard by now that there is an entire continent of plastic floating in the ocean, and marine animals are dying en masse from ingesting human detritus. If you live anywhere near water, be assured that plastic on your streets gets blown and washed out to sea. However, know that human litter is also toxic and hazardous for your local fauna, from insects to birds to mammals. Cigarette butts in particular contain toxic chemicals like arsenic that contaminate soil and water. Yes, we should reduce or even eliminate single use plastics, but we should never use our streets, roads, parks and beaches as trashcans and ashtrays. The only species that really benefits from litter is rats. If your city or town has a rat problem, litter is a serious business.

When I plog, I pick up everything except needles and dog poop, even the tiny bits of plastic that are on their way to becoming microplastic. I also even pick up paper that, in theory, is biodegradable. The problem is that a lot of “paper” is coated with plastic that won’t break down. Beyond that, studies have shown that litter begets litter. When people see litter, consciously or unconsciously, they absorb the message that no one cares, that this place doesn’t matter. That throwing a wrapper, can or bottle on the ground is no big deal. Paper litter sends this signal just as much as plastic or metal litter. If you want to reduce litter on your route long term, all of it has to go short term.

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This brings up another prime benefit of plogging. You are showing that you disapprove of litter. Again, because we humans are such imitative, peer-driven creatures, studies have shown that this disapproval actually creates social norms that make people feel constrained not to litter. You don’t have to howl and shake a fist at the sky. The fact that you are spending time picking it up speaks loudly enough.

From the road

Plogging and Cigarette Butts. Before I address why plogging is good for humanity, I want to specifically address the issue of cigarette butts. First off, they’re toxic to wildlife. Secondly, the butts contain plastic that doesn’t break down. Thirdly, they’re ugly and smelly. Fourthly, they’re a fire hazard. After picking up a good thousand or so butts, noticing along the way that many have clearly been thrown out car windows, I began to give this particular form of litter some thought. Now, I don’t smoke, nor do my parents, children or siblings. My grandfather smoked and died at age 89, although, tough old bird, he probably would’ve lived to 109 if he hadn’t. I don’t like the way cigarettes smell, and I detest breathing in secondhand smoke. In fact, I think one of the few genuine advancements of the last forty years is how much less I have to deal with cigarette smoke in my daily life.

Smoking cigarettes takes an average of ten years off your life. Plus it will likely make the five years leading to your death unpleasant. But there are reasons not to smoke besides an early death: it’s an expensive habit, you are profiting nasty corporations, it ages your skin terribly, it makes your clothes smell bad, etc. I bet every smoker has heard all these a million times. Still they smoke. It’s addictive. It meets a need.

In society’s push to condemn smoking we have ostracized and condemned smokers. We have pushed them to the margins to do the deed: parking lots and cars. Beyond this we have tried to make smoking inconvenient (i.e. not “enabling” smokers) by taking away ashtrays. I have to admit that during my crazy sixties/seventies childhood, one year in elementary school my class made ashtrays as Christmas gifts for our parents. Mindboggling. I am not suggesting we go back to this. But by taking away every single freaking ashtray in existence, we have forced smokers (or at least made it extremely convenient) to use the world as their ashtray. To the planet’s dismay. If we provide ashtrays, cigarette butt littering decreases. It’s a fact.

Two-thirds of all cigarette butts end up as litter, making them the most littered item in the world. Trillions find their way to the ground every year. If there is litter already on the ground, smokers toss and flick their butts at an even higher rate. A significant proportion of littered butts find their way to the ocean where they are ingested by unsuspecting animals, or they join the mass of plastic that lurks like a giant Portuguese man-of-war of retribution that will swallow us someday.

Surprisingly (at least to me) cigarette butts contain high quality plastic, the kind that can be turned into pellets that can be turned into benches and plastic lumber. One company is doing this. They even offer free shipping to send collected cigarette butts to them. However, the resulting pellets don’t quite pay for the recycling and mailing costs, and so this enterprising company organized a subsidy from a tobacco company. Now this particular tobacco company is one of the least evil ones out there. Still cigarettes kill, so at first I suspected this subsidy to be bogus greenwashing. Now I’m not so sure. Now I’m wondering if this is a valid attempt to move towards a circular economy, where the entire lifecycle of a product is designed to create zero waste.

Portable butt collection

Perhaps by shaming and vilifying smokers we have done some social good. But the fact is, sitting on your human butt all day is flat out as bad for you as smoking. Do we shame and vilify that? Or does our society aid and abet it at every turn by making driving super convenient and walking and biking dangerous and unpleasant? By not accommodating smokers in the most basic way (with a few measly outdoor smoking areas with ashtrays) what the heck are smokers supposed to do with their detritus? These days many cars don’t even have ashtrays. Yes, non-smokers should not be exposed to second-hand smoke. Yes, smokers can and should use personal ashtray pouches and receptacles. I totally support this and I encourage you to buy them and gift them to all your smoking friends and relatives. But a few strategic self-extinguishing ashtrays here and there would go a long ways towards reducing our toxic litter problem. Collecting and recycling cigarette butts would 1) tell smokers that throwing their butts on the ground is not the natural, most acceptable way to dispose of their cigarette even if it is convenient, 2) acknowledge that smokers are part of our society and their actions matter, and 3) give smokers an avenue to participate in a different, more conscious approach to human waste. It’s time to reintegrate smokers back into civic life.

Plogging and Humanity. Humanity benefits if our planet is not destroyed. I hope that’s obvious. But there’s more. Litter is expensive to clean up. Indeed businesses and government in the US spend tens of billions of dollars each year trying to keep up with litter and still fail. There is strong evidence that litter diminishes community pride, creates the belief that community members don’t care about one another, erodes civic trust in general, and in particular erodes trust that both local government and even the police will do what’s right. It also reduces the likelihood of citizen participation in public life. People loathe litter. In one survey of over five thousand respondents across the United States, 23% listed litter as the one thing they most wanted to change about their community. Wow. They chose litter over crime, noise, and traffic. (Personally, I would choose noise, another form of pollution, but that’s because I can plog and pick litter up myself. Can’t clean up noise myself.) Litter in a neighborhood or community significantly decreases property values. Litter can injure, from slipping on it or stepping on broken glass, etc. Litter is a fire hazard, especially half-extinguished cigarette butts. Litter can bring both rats and disease. Parks and beaches strewn with litter are less psychologically restorative to the human psyche than litter-free ones. But far more importantly, litter is both a symptom and a cause of not right relation with oneself, with one’s community, with nature, and with the planet as a whole.

Not right relation. Let’s explore it.

Ditch before plogging

One of the most necessary tasks for human beings over the next two decades is for us individually and collectively to become conscious of and responsible for our waste. At the macro level, nations must take responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions (among other waste) and drive the net amount to zero. At the micro level, individuals must become aware of their personal waste stream, reduce the amount, and dispose of the remainder in a manner that does not harm others or the planet. It is possible to design the potential for litter out of many of the products we consume, but remember, even if we were to replace all plastic packaging with paper or glass, when tossed on the ground, even paper and glass harm the environment (just less so than plastic), decrease civic trust, encourage more litter, create safety, health, and fire hazards, etc. To truly address litter we have to make littering unacceptable.

Either we change human consciousness so that no one litters because they understand th impact, or we change behavioral norms so that no one litters because it is socially unacceptable. I posit if someone is unconcerned or unconscious about their micro-waste, it’s nearly impossible to get them to become conscious and concerned about their country’s macro waste. I also posit if we can change the behavior of micro actions, larger consciousness has a chance to follow.

Ditch after plogging

Littering is a small crime, a small act of aggression against society, the planet and the future. The litterer consciously or unconsciously expects “someone else,” whether it be the government or nature, to deal with the paper, metal, or plastic that they find convenient to toss to the ground. Maybe they were taught dilution is the answer to pollution (seriously, people used to say this) and that nature can take care of any trash they care to throw. Maybe they feel society doesn’t treat them well, so dealing their trash is the least society can do for them. If they believe powerful and important people don’t have to worry about their waste, maybe strewing their waste makes them feel powerful and important. Maybe they are children who are imitating their parents. Maybe they are smokers who mistakenly believe their butts are made of paper or feel society has given them no other choice for their butts.

The thing is, these small crimes make it impossible to live in right relation to nature and to society. All but the very youngest of us know we do a wrong when we litter. We may tell ourselves it’s no big deal, but consciously or subconsciously we carry guilt for the mini-transgression. This is why people litter much more frequently when they think no one is looking. It is also why in interviews with observed litterers, 35% denied having littered in the past month even though the interviewers had just seen them do so.

But it’s just litter I hear you say! No one is dropping atomic bombs. Stay with me here. Because littering disrupts our right relations with nature, it closes our heart to it and causes us to lose our ability to be rejuvenated by nature. We can’t hear its whispers, we can’t feel its inspiration, we can’t absorb its solace. Maybe you think this is craziness, but if you have a right relation with nature, you know what I mean, and you know what a terrible thing it is to miss out on this. Once you have a right relation with nature, you can no longer endorse its destruction. This is huge. Yes, something as insignificant as littering gets in the way of this.

Bag of not-right relations

When we litter, we shift the burden of our waste from ourselves to some other entity. We know we are making a mess. (Studies have shown 80% of litter is intentional, not accidental.) We know we are diminishing our community, making it more unpleasant for everyone. Knowing that litter harms those around us produces guilt and gets in the way of our relationship with others. Can you say hello cheerfully to someone in whose garden you’ve just thrown a chips bag? Can you smile at a child after you’ve just let your dog poop in her playground? Even if you can, I suggest your actions do get in the way of genuine human interaction, that they prevent you from receiving the gifts of community. We share our parks, our streets, our planet. Even if our laws don’t reflect this the way they should, shirking your duty for your waste violates a basic contract between human beings.

Think of all this little guilt building up like plaque in the arteries of our soul. Slowly, invisibly, inexorably, it clogs things up until you’re not in right relation with anybody or anything. Believe it or not, most people fundamentally want to believe they are a good person. This desire to do good, to be good, is what makes redemption possible and is why we don’t need to be absolutely hopeless about the human race just yet. Does one piece of litter make you a bad person? Of course not. But I would say littering gets in the way of being a good person. Good people have integrity. They take responsibility for their actions, and they try not to harm others. Refraining from littering is a small thing, but it’s easy to do. Sure a napkin or a scrap of plastic might get away from you once in a while, but on the whole, carrying an empty bottle to a recycling bin (or, better yet, bringing your own water bottle) is just not that hard. So failing to do it is a transgression.

Since we know litter begets litter, the best way to keep people from littering is not to scold and guilt trip them, but rather to provide them with a litter-free environment and plenty of receptacles so not littering is reinforced and easy. Yes, eliminating plastic bags and plastic straws help, but they are a small part of the litter I currently pick up. Yes, designing consumer products to be litter-resistant is a step-level advance that we should advocate for. Yes, we must head towards a circular economy where waste is avoided entirely or productively reintegrated by design back into raw material for future products. But that’s going to take a while. By plogging and plalking you not only keep toxic crap out of nature today and make your community more pleasant today, you also gently nudge people along a path of right relations that will hugely benefit them.

But why should you plog in particular? Why not instead pressure your local government to do a better job keeping your parks and streets picked up? After all, the result is the same, a litter-free park or street.

Yes, the end result is the same. But how it is achieved makes a hugely different psychological impact. If a person prone to litter observes a local government maintenance crew picking up a park, that person will think, yeah, that’s what my tax money is for. To clean up after me. And so that person will continue to litter. The litter-free park will discourage littering in general (good!), but the fundamental social norm won’t change. If that same person observes you picking up litter with slight moue of distaste, the person will read from your body language that you think littering is bad. He/she might not agree with you, might think you’re some kind of environmental lunatic, but his/her littering habit has been challenged, not reinforced. That person will get the message that some other human being thinks less of them for their action. You’ve just given them a gentle nudge to life-affirming right relations that may transform their life.

By now you think I’m nuts or you’re intrigued. So let’s get down to the basics of plogging, how I do it anyway. I use a lightweight nylon bag that is both strong and washable. I pick up everything I see that is both man-made and obviously not supposed to be there. Literally every single thing, including small bits of glass and plastic. You should be able to eat off the sidewalk after I’m done. I’ve never seen a needle on my plogs, but if I did, I wouldn’t pick it up, nor do I pick up dog poop. (I have a friend who does pick up dog poop left by irresponsible dog owners in his neighborhood. He is a saint. If you are also that generous, I applaud you.) I also don’t pick up hubcaps (seriously, I see more than a few) or other items that are too heavy to jog with. But aluminum cans and plastic bottles find their way into my bag, as does the odd pizza box, clothes hangers, or even, once, a full box of cereal. In San Francisco, I put most of the trash I collect in public garbage bins. Sometimes, if it’s garbage day and lots of recycling is on the ground, I’ll pick up the recycling and randomly put it into people’s bins. Trash near my house goes into my own compost/recycling/garbage bins.

I don’t wear gloves, but you can if you choose. I pick up things gingerly, I’m very careful with glass, and I consciously don’t touch my face until after I get home and can wash my hands. I don’t confront people who are littering, and I advise you not to either. Guilt can make people defensive and nasty. Just pick up the item and move on. They’ll get the message. When you get to a park where people are around, you can say brightly to an accompanying friend (or the world in general) “What a nasty mess!” before you cheerfully go about picking it all up.

The first time you plog a route, it may take you a while, but don’t despair. It will get better and eventually you’ll get some good stretches of running in. If your route is really bad, just plog the last two blocks the first time, the last four blocks the second time, the last six blocks the third time, etc. until you get your route into shape.

Once you start plogging, beware. You will now always need to bring a plogging bag with you as you walk to the store or other errands because the litter you see will annoy you. When I’m walking with others, I don’t pick up every single thing because it would try their patience, just the stuff that bugs me the most. But once you start plogging, you’ll discover the rewarding secret. Even though clearing litter from a block or a park is not permanent, even though no one may thank you, even though it will seem as if people throw down cigarette butts and fast food wrappers just to spite you, once you’ve got it all picked up and that block or park looks great, even if just for a moment, the result is satisfying. You’ve done one small but mighty act to get human beings in right relation with the planet.


Teaser photo credit: By Muntaka Chasant – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Karen Lynn Allen

Karen Lynn Allen is a novelist and blogger who draws on her background in both literature and engineering to write about energy and resilience issues. Her novel, Beaufort 1849, depicts a society that needs to make an energy transition but instead doubles down on its way of life with catastrophic consequences.

Tags: behavior change, building a resilient society, environmental activism, reducing waste